Unmanned and autonomous vessels – the legal implications

Shipowners’ Club has published an article on the legal implications from a P&I perspective of unmanned and autonomous vessels.

The Club noted that unmanned and autonomous vessels were “a hot topic” in the shipping industry at present. While rapid advances were being made on the technical side, the Club asked whether the liability regime was keeping pace, and what were the implications for P&I cover?

Shipowners’ said that first of all it was important to distinguish between unmanned and autonomous vessels In its own article it defined unmanned vessels (UVs) as “vessels without crew on board but which are controlled remotely from the shore”. Autonomous vessels (ASVs) were “pre-programmed vessels that operate using algorithms.”

The Club said that much of the existing commentary on this topic focused on whether UVs and ASVs fell within the definition of a ’ship’ for the purposes of existing regulations and legislation. The general consensus was that UVs could be categorized as ships and, although ASVs did not fit as neatly into this definition, they too would likely still be considered ships.

This raised questions about the application of key international conventions such as the UN Law of the Sea Convention 1982 (UNCLOS), the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea 1974 (SOLAS) and perhaps most importantly, the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea 1972 (COLREGS).

Rules 2 and 5 of the COLREGS both assume some human involvement. Rule 2 requires the Master and crew to comply with the Rules and Rule 5 requires every vessel to maintain a proper look out.

As Shipowners’ observed, how can either Rule be complied with when there were no crew on board? Could shore side personnel remotely operating a UV constitute a Master or crew for the purposes of Rule 2? Could a UV with fitted cameras constitute a ’proper look out’? Was it even necessary or possible for an ASV to comply with Rule 5 if it was operating on a pre-programmed route?

Existing civil liability conventions such as the Limitation of Liability for Maritime Claims Convention 1976 (LLMC), add another layer of complexity. The LLMC 1976 defined the right to limit by reference to ’shipowners and salvors’ and would therefore seemingly apply to UVs and ASVs. However, the Club noted that, as with other conventions, it was not drafted with UVs and ASVs in mind, and the application varied depending on the jurisdiction.

Shipowners’ Club said that it was clear that amendments would need to be made to the existing regulatory framework to ensure it remained relevant to UVs and ASVs. The Club found it “encouraging” that the Comité Maritime International had established an International Working Group on Maritime Law and Unmanned Vessels to draft a Code of Conduct. “However, given the length of time it takes to garner international consensus on such issues, it seems likely that the technology and use of UVs and ASVs will soon overtake the existing legal regimes”, the Club warned.

In the interim, the Club thought that  national legislation, contractual wordings and insurance was likely to fill the void.

From the Club’s perspective UVs and ASVs had significant potential advantages in terms of reducing the number of claims arising from human error in the navigation of vessels. The Club assesses the cause of all notified claims and on average 38% were caused by human error. In addition, approximately 42% of claims were categorized as personal injury claims, which would significantly decrease were UVs and AVs to become more commonplace, as well as reducing wage bills, the Club said.

“The P&I cover sold by the Club obviously responds to Members’ third party liabilities and whilst the regulatory framework struggles to keep pace with these changes, the Club recognises that it must adapt quickly and help lead the way”, concluded Shipowners’.